Photo Credit: Kevin Garrett
Alicia Graf Mack always knew that dance was her calling in life. She often jokes that she practically came out of the womb dancing, so it's no surprise that she started her professional career in dance at just 17-years-old. As we know, aches and pains go hand-in-hand with a dance career, but Mack’s were always on another level. At the age of 19, she was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis (AS), an inflammatory disease that, over time, can cause some of the vertebrae in your spine to fuse. After various breaks in her dancing career, a back injury, and the birth of her two children, Mack officially retired from her formal career in 2016. Now, as Julliard’s first black director of dance, she’s dedicating the next phase of her career to educating some of the most talented dancers in the country.
Mack was recognized for her immense dance talent at a very young age. She began her training at Kinetics Dance Theatre and Ballet Royale Institute of Maryland. Then, when she was just 17-years-old and finishing her senior year of high school, she joined the Dance Theatre of Harlem as a professional dancer. As a teen, Mack experienced a lot of aches and pains, but doctors assured her that it was simply due to wear and tear from dancing so many hours in a day.
Through Mack’s first year with Dance Theatre of Harlem, her pains intensified and she eventually was forced to leave the company at 20-years-old due to a knee injury. After several years of doctor’s visits, Mack’s cousin, a rheumatologist, finally put the pieces together to help diagnose Mack with ankylosing spondylitis (AS), a form of inflammatory arthritis that primarily affects the spine, but other joints can’t be affected as well. Symptoms of this condition include pain, stiffness, and fatigue. Mack’s knee became so unstable due to the affects of AS that she had to go through two surgeries to fix it.
In 2005, after a four-year hiatus from professional dance, Mack joined the renowned Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York as a lead dancer. Much to her dismay though, she was forced to leave Ailey only after three years due to additional injuries. At this point, she came to terms with the fact that she would never return to dance and decided to invest her time in college. “Every time I stepped away from dancing- I sort of retooled myself with education,” Mack to Romper.com. She eventually earned two degrees and almost accepted a corporate job, but the dance universe brought her back to the stage.
Photo Credit: Paul Kolnik
Participating in a tribute to Judith Jamison in 2010 reignited a flame in Mack, and she rejoined Ailey a year later with a whole new understanding of her condition. She toured and danced with Ailey for a few more years, but in 2014 a debilitating back injury put Mack’s career on pause once again. “I feel like I knew that was the end of my formal dancing career. I’m still dancing and moving now, Thank God. But I knew that marked the end,” Mack said to Romper.com. This particular hiatus from dance gave Mack a new purpose in life as she became pregnant with her first child just a few months after surgery. Then, after another return to Ailey, and the birth of her second child, Mack finally decided to retire in 2016. The end of Mack's formal dancing career though only marked the beginning of a new phase in her career.
Photo Credit: juilliard.edu
This month, Mack celebrates her one-year anniversary as Juilliard’s first black director of dance. Before she accepted the position with Juilliard, she was a visiting assistant professor of modern dance technique at Webster University in St. Louis and an adjunct dance professor at University of Houston. “I feel honored to work with some of the brightest and most talented young dancers in our country,” Mack to Baltimore Sun.
Mack’s unique trajectory proves that a career in dance can be very versatile. She began as a principal dancer with Dance Theater of Harlem and Complexions Contemporary Ballet, spent most of her career as a dance lead at Ailey, was a guest artist with Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet, and performed with artists such as performed with Beyonce, John Legend, and Alicia Keys. Now, she is molding the next generation of elite dancers at Juilliard. Through multiple rounds of injuries and being diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder, she never gave up because she knew dance was her destiny.